Dialogue and Deliberation as an Integral Process for Community Media

David Bohm was an American theoretical physicist who developed interconnected ideas relating to quantum theory, neuropsychology and the philosophy of mind. Bohm was concerned with the “dangers of rampant reason and technology,” and advocated, instead, that science and philosophy should aim to develop a genuinely supportive process of social dialogue. This process would be one of conversation and interchange that recognises both the physical and the symbolic aspects of our existence and our consciousness.  

In 1991, Bohm working with Donald Factor and Peter Garrett, suggested that a meaningful process of dialogue,[1] what he called the “flow of meaning between us,”[2] would focus on exploring our shared social experience in a way that “could broaden and unify conflicting and troublesome divisions in the social world.”[3] Bohm, Factor and Garrett’s proposal was to develop a form of civic and social interaction that could be used to resolve conflict which, if left unchecked, might lead to “dispute, division and often to violence.”

According to Bohm, Factor and Garrett, “dialogue is a way of observing, collectively, how hidden values and intentions can control our behaviour, and how unnoticed cultural differences can clash without our realizing what is occurring.” If we adopt a process-led form of dialogue, according to Bohm, Factor and Garrett, then we might be able to foster a space of “collective learning,” which they hope would give rise to a greater sense of social harmony and fellowship, and through which a better exercise of personal and social creativity may arise.

Bohm, Factor and Garrett did not conceive that this process of dialogue would be fixed and delineated, and thereby dogmatically conform to inherited social expectations. Instead, they supported the idea that dialogue would be exploratory, and that the meanings and ideas that arise through the process of mutual symbolic exchange would continue to unfold in interesting and unexpected ways as the process of discussion was facilitated.

In this respect, and according to Bohm, Factor and Garrett, no firm rules could be laid down for conducting the practice of dialogue exchange. This was because the essence of dialogue would be learning, “not as the result of consuming a body of information or doctrine imparted by an authority, nor as a means of examining or criticizing a particular theory or programme, but rather as part of an unfolding process of creative participation between peers.”

Reading the proposal now, it is striking that it is so similar in essence and expectation to many of the practices undertaken in community media that I’ve come across over recent years. The focus on learning and unfolding, rather than predicting or seeking outcomes, fits with my experience that community media is a developmental process of engagement, rather than a transactional platform for information exchange.

I’ve seen many times how a community radio discussion between diverse groups of people can be supportively facilitated as a sharing and learning experience, rather than as a clash of opinions or a public relations exercise by motivated private parties. In my experience this process of dialogue and exchange, using community radio or podcasting platforms and techniques, benefit by using a pair of headphones and a microphone to help facilitate the discussion. My favourite form of podcast is the open discussion format, in which the flow of the conversation isn’t fixed or driven in a specific way, but is allowed to open and develop. It’s the gaps where people are thinking and not simply telling what they assume they know that I value.

A question I ask at the end of the podcasts that I create or take part in, is do we feel better? Have we understood one another better? Are we more aware of one another’s points of view? Indeed, have we been able to put into words those thoughts that have bubbled under the surface, and for which this is the first chance we have had of articulating them?

The psychologist William James described thinking, not as a machine-like process or a calculation in a system, but rather as a gesture and a performance undertaken in the practice of interaction between people. As James pointed out, “every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost.”[4] If we do not share our thoughts, we are losing something precious.

As social beings we are burdened by the pursuit of meaning in our shared experience. Our social experience is never automatically agreeable. It is often contested, antagonistic and contradictory. But if we leave public discourse only in the hands of the baying mob, then we will never resolve our differences and move forward. We can only move forward, according to Bohm, Factor and Garrett, if we have the skills, the capacity and the willingness to do this in deliberative and shared spaces of expression.

Bohm, Factor and Garrett suggest, then, that we look carefully at this deliberative process, particularly the way that it helps us to move beyond our accustomed thinking. As is now commonly understood, we are each psychologically conditioned by our biases and our previous patterns of behaviour and thought. Bohm, Factor and Garrett recommend, however, that we carefully reflect on the processes that bring forward these assumptions, and look anew at the picture of reality we have inherited and that we assume to be true.

This picture of reality is usually based on our inherited “concepts, memories and reflexes coloured by our personal needs, fears, and desires,” but it has limitations and boundaries, that we would do well to recognise and be aware of. Meaningful interaction between people, according to Bohm, Factor and Garrett, is “limited and distorted by the boundaries of language and the habits of our history, sex and culture.” As a result it is “extremely difficult to disassemble this mixture, or to ever be certain whether what we are perceiving – or what we may think about those perceptions – is at all accurate.”

We are witness today to the extreme effects of polarisation and subjective thinking, as political movements and anti-movements clash over what their conception of a truthful life might be. In the age of Trump, Brexit, misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, and boosterism, there is a battle over partial and subjective understanding. One world view is attempting to win out over the other. The problem is that resolution of these disputes will not come from counter-antagonism and partisan victimising.

For Bohm, Factor and Garrett the deliberative process is not open-ended and relativistic, but rather demonstrates that social agreement can and must be based on mutually respected and understood principles. Principles that show how we can constructively mover forward together. If we maintain our antagonistic model of social engagement, then we tend to stick with our fixed truths that each of us has adopted to explain the world.  What is needed, however, and according to Bohm, Factor and Garrett, is a method with the “means by which we can slow down the process of thought in order to be able to observe it while it is actually occurring,” and thereby demonstrate that our thinking is neither random nor chaotic, but is the product of histories, feelings, needs and archetypal models that we can understand and adapt.

Aldus Huxley called this the art of “goodness politics” as opposed to “power politics.” Goodness politics is the civic practice in which we attempt to organise on a “large scale without sacrificing the ethical values which emerge only among individuals and small groups.” (Huxley, 2005). However, what has never been attempted, according to Huxley, is the development of a deliberative politics within the “federated whole,” because few have considered the need to change, not the masses, but rather the personalities of the individuals ourselves.

As Carl Jung warns

“An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotised by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead” (Jung, 1968, p. 480).

Where deliberation of the kind recommended by Bohm, Factor and Garrett might help, then, is in slowing down the process of thought, decoupling our expectations of deliberation from outcomes and results, and instead providing some space for them to unfold and emerge over time. As Bohm, Factor and Garrett explain, this deliberative process is

“Not concerned with deliberately trying to alter or change behaviour nor to get the participants to move toward a predetermined goal. Any such attempt would distort and obscure the processes that the Dialogue has set out to explore. Nevertheless, changes do occur because observed thought behaves differently from unobserved thought. Dialogue can thus become an opportunity for thought and feeling to play freely in a continuously of deeper or more general meaning. Any subject can be included, and no content is excluded. Such an activity is very rare in our culture.”

I’m resolved to making this activity less rare in our culture, by using the tools and techniques of media in a positive way, to create a safe space for sharing, creative expression and exploring of our mutually intersubjective experiences.

I’m reminded of the scene in Educating Rita when Frank asks Rita how it might be possible to “cope with some of the staging difficulties in a production of Peer Gynt.” Rita’s answer is to “do it on the radio.” It’s the best answer to a complex question I’ve heard in years, and I’m sticking with it. What’s the best way to develop a deliberative democracy? Do it on the radio.

Huxley, A. (2005). Grey Eminance. Vintage.

Jung, C. G. (1968). Psychology and Alchemy (Second ed.). Routledge.

[1] http://www.david-bohm.net/dialogue/dialogue_proposal.html

[2] http://www.david-bohm.net/dialogue/flow_of_meaning.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bohm

[4] https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin4.htm

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